Theatre review: The Iliad, Edinburgh

Reuben Johnson and Ben Dilloway take on The Iliad. Picture: Contributed
Reuben Johnson and Ben Dilloway take on The Iliad. Picture: Contributed
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The right to fail – or to steer very close to failure – is an important one in every art; but all the same, it’s rare to see any artist exercising it quite so boldly, at such a dramatic turning point in his career, as Mark Thomson does in his farewell production as artistic director of the Lyceum.

The Iliad | Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh | Rating ***

Chris Hannan’s new version of The Iliad takes Homer’s mighty epic about the siege of Troy and the wrath of Achilles, and compresses it deftly into just under three hours of theatre.

It makes a brave early decision, though, to give this stage version no central narrating voice – no chorus, no storyteller, no representative of Homer; and that choice turns the adaptation into a Herculean theatrical task, a dramatisation of a vital founding episode in human civilisation that also has, through action alone, to tell the back-story to that episode, predict its consequences, and conjure up Homer’s vast interplay between comedy and tragedy, in both earth and heaven.

So it’s therefore hardly surprising that the show at first seems fraught with a danger of sliding into almost Python-esque absurdity, as a group of gods conceived as hyper-rich modern celebrities loll around on sun-loungers in golden bikinis, bickering over the wars they have set in motion.

The set and costumes – all broken Grecian architraves and elaborate helmets – have a cluttered, kitsch video-game look that both distances and slightly trivialises the action; and amid the confusion, there’s plenty of bad acting, as Thomson’s 12-strong cast – never quite an ensemble – struggle to find a tone that matches both the grandeur of the story, and its earthy understanding of frailty.

Yet somewhere around mid-evening, the drama begins to click into place; and the big theme gradually emerges, of exactly how both gods and humans can begin to move beyond the murderous rage embodied in Ben Turner’s surly but increasingly tragic Achilles.

Emmanuella Coles is magnificent throughout as Zeus’s betrayed and furious wife Hera, offering a gorgeous masterclass in how to combine every possible meaning of the word goddess; Ron Donachie is ever more impressive as the defeated Trojan king, Priam, who transmutes unimaginable grief into a huge passion for peace. And with the support of Claire McKenzie’s astonishingly powerful vocal score, superbly sung by the whole cast, this flawed but unforgettable show finally succeeds in telling us something vital - not least about the utter, unsatisfying mess of absurdity, fury and violence out of which civilisation somehow has to emerge, and set out to build a place of peace, at last.

• Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 14 May